Who Wants Eternal Life?

- Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Portuguese author José Saramago deals in big concept books. His well-established classic Blindness is about a bout of contagious blindness that sweeps a nation after all. Death at Intervals, a more recent 2008 novel, works in rather the same vein…at least it appears to at first.

There is only one single named character in Saramago’s novel, and they are introduced more than halfway through. So what happens before that? Well, it’s all very macro really.

“The following day, no one died” opens the novel, as miraculously the citizens of an unnamed country seem to have evaded death. People are pulled out of car-wrecks with horrible wounds that nevertheless don’t kill them, and old people on the brink remain forever in a vegetative state.

For all its wonder and whimsy, Saramago’s novel focusses on the immediate social issues that this strange turn of events leads to. It starts with the funeral homes going out of business and having to re-jiggle their business plans, providing elaborate and expensive funeral services for parrots. Soon, the care homes get overfull and need a new strategy. Not the mention the ironic crisis experienced by the church: if people live forever, then God can’t provide eternal life after death. Needless to say, the country finds itself in the grip of some rather serious issues.

I will say no more of the plot, as it has some interesting and innovative departures from convention, and instead dwell on what makes this book great. Mainly, Saramago’s prose style, which will either have people enamoured or throwing their copy out of the window in frustration. Clearly, since I retained my copy long enough to write this post, I fall into the former category.

Saramago writes huge paragraphs that can often span over two pages, and strangely he doesn’t even use speech marks. The wall of text looms. But why does he do this and why should you put up with it? Well, his run-on style feels strangely out-of-control. Like a snowball rolling down a hill and rapidly gaining mass and momentum. This lends itself perfectly to his content, which charts a situation of increasing volatility, careening out of hand.

He also chucks his speech marks out because he’s one of those ‘meta-’ authors. He likes to highlight that his speech isn’t directly reported; it’s all part of his undifferentiated account of events. This often makes you unsure as to who is meant to be speaking a particular sentence, which chimes with the chaos gripping the city.

These sound like horrible impediments to an easy-read, but they work oh-so-well in evoking the muddled panic that the plot describes. Importantly, the prose is hilarious, crammed with digressions that the narrator gets angry with himself for, absurdly unnecessary details and bizarre personifications, which in this case, includes a rather bitchy scythe.

The first half of the novel is impressively wide in scope, assessing all of the fallout effects of mankind’s greatest desire: to live forever. The country is analysed as if from different disciplines: economic, geographic, political, philosophical, spiritual, and televisual.

Then it suddenly changes tack, and we are greeted with a completely different novel. For all its concentration on mass-movements and concepts, we suddenly plunge into the world of a single individual. Saramago’s prose becomes delicate and emotive whilst fleshing out their psychology. What follows couldn’t be simpler…a love story. In the midst of the mad, cerebral clutter so far this is hugely disarming. As if When Harry Met Sally was suddenly cut into the middle of Blade Runner.

This leaves you with a novel of two halves. Of two very refreshing halves. Each amplifying the other by their stark contrast. From the macro, we get the micro, but no further indication of what to do with the tale. It’s up for us to generalise the moral of the story out from the second-half and realise its ramifications in the context of the whole.

And most importantly, it leaves you feeling really nice and squiggly…which is the last thing I was expecting from a book about death by a conceptual author. Saramago takes an abstract concept, and through all his flights of fancy, condenses it into something that we can not only make sense of, but emote with.

Even though I expected this to be a gem, it defied my expectations. A must-read for anyone interested in kooky concepts; yet for all its eccentricities, you’ll leave with a universal message.

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